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October 15, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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My First Year at Uni: An African Perspective

I come from a tiny country called Ghana, situated along the west coast of Africa. Three years ago, I made the life-changing decision to immigrate to New Zealand with my partner. At the time, going back to university was the last thing on my mind. After all, I was armed with a Communications Degree, majoring in public relations and journalism, the latter of which I had practised for close to a decade.
However, after a year without making any headway in the job market, my partner and I began to reassess our priorities, and it made sense to go back to school and upskill. I decided to study law, and after applying, was duly admitted to the law school here at Victoria last year.
It was a bit of a culture shock. Almost everything was different, from the size of the lecture theatres to the different approaches to teaching and learning.
For me, the first task was trying to even understand what the lecturers were saying. Not only were the accents different to what I was used to, the slang, jargon, and the context around which lectures were based were all alien to me. References were often made to New Zealand’s historical, political, and cultural contexts which I knew nothing about. I spent endless nights playing the recorded lectures over and over, making note after note. Sometimes, I ended up with five different notes on the same material.

Blackboard was a lifesaver in first year. Without it, I probably would not have made the cut for second year law school. The recorded lectures and powerpoint slides, along with tutorials, made all the difference for me. However, not all the lectures were recorded, and it took me a couple of weeks, or even months to fully apprise myself with the university’s online interface. I grew up in a country where a lot of the teaching and learning is done the old-fashioned way; through books. I learnt about computers, but I didn’t even know how to use the damn thing till I hit my early twenties, and didn’t own a smartphone or laptop till my mid-twenties.
Navigating the campuses for my lecture theatres and tutorial rooms in the first few weeks was a herculean task, and mastering public transport was essential to effectively juggling work and school. During the first half of the year, I was juggling two jobs and law school, and sometimes had to go back and forth between jobs, lectures, and tutorials up to three or four times a day. What would have been an inconvenience for most was a nightmare for me.
I seriously began to question if it was all worth it; the time, the effort, the money. It was only on the advice of my tutors that I decided not to seek extra tuition because I was told they could be counterproductive. At the end of my first trimester, I passed my Media Communications and International Relations papers quite comfortably, but barely made the pass grade for second trimester law.

Of all the challenges I faced in my first year, none so irked me as the need to constantly defend misconceptions about the African continent and its people. I wouldn’t exactly call it racism, but when in the twenty-first century, and with all the knowledge at our fingertips, people still have a warped perception of what everyday normal life is in most parts of the continent, it gets annoying.
Beyond the odd jokes about living in huts, doing bone dances and travelling on boats, the commonest assumption many people make at a cursory glance is that you must be a refugee or come from a refugee background. There was a funny incident in a Wellington pub about a year and half ago when this lovely bloke came up to me to express his profound admiration for the work I was doing to “save my people” after he heard I was a political reporter from some African country. It was clear he’d conveniently assumed that I was from some war-ravaged country, risking my life to tell the story “suffering masses” at the hands of corrupt government officials and dangerous rebels. After a long thought I decided it was neither the time nor place to begin to explain to this nice fella that where I come from in Africa, I had never seen conflict. Ghana was the first African country south of the Sahara to gain independence, and the only major conflict I know of is the one my ancestors fought against British rule. We have a democratic system of governance and government changes hands, quite rapidly I might add, not through the bullet but the ballot.
Sure, Ghana is no paradise. We have almost the same major challenges with our infrastructure, economy, and other areas of development like much of the developing world, but our cause is not helped by the constant negative assumptions that continue to fuel ignorance about the continent. In fact, sometimes I was at pains having to explain that Africa is not a country but a continent made up of over fifty countries, each with its own socio-economic, cultural, and political dynamics.
I have had classmates ask me where I learnt to speak and write such good English, or if I grew up in some European country. I always have to remind them that English is my official language. Sure, not everybody in Ghana speaks fluent English, but over ninety per cent of New Zealanders can’t speak at least two of the three official languages of their country either; English, Māori, and Sign Language.

My Kiwi friends and colleagues, bless them, and even friends back home are always pestering me with questions like: “Oh! How is the African Community on campus like?” And I know they are genuinely interested in the community, which is nice, but I am always at a loss to explain to them that I don’t fraternise with the African Community on campus, and don’t really see the need to.
First of all, there are not that many Africans on campus. The last time I checked, there were only around thirty Ghanaians registered with the Ghanaian Community in Wellington. Of this, less than half are students, almost all of whom are PhD scholarship holders, who will leave after their studies. Most of the other “African students” are actually Kiwis, with African parentage. The issues that concern these two groups are different from the issues that concern me, and the numbers don’t exactly make for a sustainable peer group. But do I really need to go out there and find “my kind” to be friends with? I don’t think so.
When I first moved to New Zealand three years ago, what first struck me was the nuclear nature of families and an almost individualistic approach to socio-economic and political life. Sure, the people are friendly, the friendliest bunch, second only to Ghanaians if you ask me! Yet, every soul seems cocooned in their little bodies. To understand my perspective on this, you need to understand that I come from a country with a relatively similar landmass to New Zealand and yet, a population exceeding thirty million. English is our official language, but there are thousands of other local dialects that people speak. Everybody grows up learning to speak three or four of these dialects to be able to interact with their friends and neighbours. There are numerous ethnicities and religions, yet, many marriages across ethnic and religious divides. We are taught from a young age not to exist in isolation, because the self cannot survive without the community. However, it is different here. There are all these little pockets of social groupings, and again I must maintain the students are generally friendly, but there is a lack of sense of camaraderie, the type that transcends religious, political, and quite possibly racial lines.
So has it all been gloom and doom this past year? Not exactly. For each bad experience there are about ten good experiences that make my decision to go back to uni worthwhile. What I would say though is that moving forward, there needs to be more integration. Students exist in their own little pockets, and while there has been no cause for alarm yet, isolated social groups are the very seeds that have sown discord among student communities in many a university.

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